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John's Books

Notes to Transformation

The Template-Makers of the Paris Basin

Creation of Gothic Architecture: Ark of God

Master Masons of Chartres

The Contractors of Chartres

The Contractors of Chartres
by John James

A two-volume monograph

on the most famous church in medieval France,

built between the fire of 1194 and the 1220s.

There are only 24 copies left !


1978-81, 578 pages, 802 illustrations, cost $AUD.260, ISBN 0959600531

The most revered and famous cathedral in France, still a holy place, shrine for pilgrims and a religious centre for much of the world. It was rebuilt in one enormous effort after a disastrous fire in 1194. Less than thirty years later, with all its magnificent sculpture and beautiful stained glass, it was completed.

John spent five years there, with his three children, between 1969 and 1974. During that time he researched and measured and photographed every stone in the building. He discovered a number of remarkable things which have excited historians ever since, though not everyone has agreed with his conclusions.

He has written about this in a number of books, some of which are still available and can be bought directly from him or through any good bookstore.

The most popular, the Master Masons of Chartres, describes the detective work of discovering the identity of the master architects who created Chartres, and something of the sacred and practical geometry that was used in setting it out.

A later and more scholarly book, the Template-makers of the Paris Basin, describes what John discovered when he spent four years in the early 1980s looking for other buildings constructed by the same men.

Most recently he has begun a nine-volume Illustrated Thesaurus of the creative years of Gothic Architecture between 1120 and 1250 in the Paris Basin. This is called The Ark of God,

His monograph of the cathedral in two volumes, the Contractors of Chartres, is still, twenty-five years later, the most detailed work on the subject.

His most interesting discovery, which brought him invitations to lecture all over the world, was that;

The cathedral of Chartres was not designed by three architects, or even five or six: in our sense of the word there were no architects at all - only building contractors who were led by men deeply trained in all the subtle aspects of their craft. The evidence shows that this cathedral was built by large mobile teams of masons who moved around the countryside from job to job working for as long as the money lasted. When the funds ran out they would leave the site in a body, the crews still intact under their master, to find another project. They were like the circuses of today which roam the country, settling on one site for their allotted time and then, complete with their tents and tools, departing for other places.

Imagine a modern building designed successively by Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and others. Our first reaction might be to say 'what a mess'. But no: for whenever one of these strongly individual designers has built an addition to an older building he has worked with care and sympathy to preserve what he thought to be the best in the older work. Now imagine how different each building would be if, say, Wright set out the foundations and Gropius built the lower walls compared to the other way round. In the first Wright's intricate sense of geometry would set the pattern for all the rooms and columns, while Gropius' strong sense for rectilinear forms would impose on Wright's setout a simple unadorned silhouette. This simplicity placed over a complex setout would then condition all future work, and might have produced a most interesting building.

Nine contracting teams built the bulk of the cathedral, returning again and again in a disorderly and little supervised annual sequence for over thirty years.

JOHN JAMES writes:

The years spent at Chartres were a magical time for me, reflected in the quotation from a Pawnee shaman I used at the start of the book:

"Approach with song everything we meet."

My major discoveries at Chartres have not been refuted over the past twenty years, but have at times been lost sight of behind disagreements over my conclusions. To set the record straight, the discoveries I made include:-

Techniques for analyzing ashlar stonework that I call Toichology. ["The Contractors of Chartres", The Architectural Association Quarterly, iv 1972, 42-53 and Chartres - les constructeurs, 1978-1984]
With this I could detail the construction sequence of the cathedral showing it was built in tilted layers that were a bit higher in the west than in the east. This was illustrated in 32 isometric drawings. FROM THIS IT FOLLOWED:
Firstly, that the nave and the choir were built at the same time, not one after the other, and therefore I had to seek some other explanation for the differences in the windows, flyers and the triforium.
Secondly, the documents for the fire and the vaults provided fairly accurate dates for each phase of the work. from which the date for each section of the cathedral, including the portals and their sculpture, could be inferred.
Thirdly, all six transept portals and their porches were erected at the same time, and were not cut through existing walls nor added later. The sculpture for five portals was completed before 1208, for the porches, the south was finished by 1205 and the north by 1218. Therefore the apogee of Gothic sculpture must be dated to the reign of Phillipe Auguste, and not Saint Louis.
Fourthly, the sculpture of the Royal Portal was carved and erected at the same time as the south tower without having been moved from another location, and therefore its design had been changed while it was being built. ["An examination of some anomalies in the ascension and incarnation portals of Chartres Cathedral", Gesta, 1986].

Among a large number of minor findings I mention (for the sake of those historians who have suggested otherwise) that there is no evidence for adding the transepts nor for pulling down the western towers after the 1194 fire, nor for moving the western rose. En delit shafts were used under the high vaults. The upper "suicide" doors from the apsidal stairs were for the builders and not the clergy. The first plan was for a single ambulatory with seven deep chapels flanked by two rectangular ones at the ends of the aisles and was changed by a later architect just like Saint-Denis. The bent axis was deliberate from the beginning. There is no construction break at any level of the fifth bay of the nave that could justify the theory that the western towers and the Royal Portal were to be demolished just 30 years after they had been completed. I have suggested that the explanation for the smaller bays lies in geometry.

My explanations for the design changes and other anomalies are still questioned by some. None of us really understand the full complexities of the period, and when I wrote The Contractors I was at times too dogmatic about some my interpretations. We do get wiser with time, and I have adjusted some views in later publications. I recognize that many people other than the master could have influenced design decisions, not least the client, visiting masters or the workmen themselves. I also am aware that a master would seldom have been as consistent as I first supposed. Nevertheless, the work of the past twenty-five years still convinces me of the following:-

1. That the masters in charge of the works came and went in nearly every Early Gothic building in the Paris Basin, including works under royal patronage like Saint-Denis and la Sainte-Chapelle. ["Multiple contracting in the Saint-Denis chevet", Gesta, 1993 and The Template-Makers.]

2. That each master used his own geometry and foot measure to lay out the templates. Geometry usually included a system of verification that matched (and may have pre-dated) the procedures of Scholastic philosophy. ["Discrepancies in medieval architecture: careless or deliberate?" Architectural Association Quarterly, 1982; "Chartres cathedral and the rule of geometry", Proceedings of the sixth New Norcia Humanities symposium, Perth, 1990.]

3. That a newly appointed master in making templates with his own geometric procedures inevitably altered the building. Also, he could make design changes that altered, or even canceled, proposals begun by his predecessors.

4. That these design decisions, the geometry used and, most importantly, the technical ways of building, can be used to identify the master in charge. Since the masters worked on many sites in a lifetime, each would have left a recognizable dossier in many places. [Chapters 8 and 9 in The Template-Makers]. To locate and identify their individual contributions is a profoundly moving experience - and I have already published material on the master Olive who created tracery at Essômes and Reims, and Scarlet who set out the abbey of Longpont and the roses at Mantes and Laon. ["The Canopy of Paradise", Studies in Cistercian Architecture, 1984]. Following this trail led to four years in a camper van doing a survey of all the churches of the Paris Basin.

5. My cash flow analysis in "What price the cathedrals?", Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, xix 1972, 47-66 has been expanded to cover the whole of the Paris Basin, "Funding the Early Gothic churches of the Paris Basin”, Parergon, XV 1997, 41-82.

Historians of medieval architecture attract less funding and less jobs than they did twenty years ago, and fewer publishing. Is it indicative that less sessions are devoted to architecture at Kalamazoo than there were? Virtually none in 2002! What has gone wrong that some of the greatest monuments created by man attract so much less attention than Trojan archaeology, quarks or black holes? Is it time to revitalize our profession so it will be more fascinating to educated people? Doing that would increase jobs, grants and popular appreciation.

I have made suggestions for this, and am at the moment incorporating them into The Ark of God, 1. Identify the major innovators of the period to bring a greater sense of life and individuality to our period. It is thrilling to discover these men and to discern each step in their creative process, as in the invention of tracery. This opens a prospect that I find most exciting:- to clothe a previously anonymous period with an individual variety, and to catch a glimpse, however brief, into the actual process of creation.

2. Also identify some of the carvers. Its time to integrate recent work by Stoddard and Watson to see whether the location of the carvers they have identified coincides with the construction breaks in the doorways [Stoddard, Sculptors of the west portals of Chartres cathedral, New York, 1987 and Watson, The structural principles of the Head Master of Chartres Cathedral, dissertation University of North Carolina, 1986.]

3. The carvers of foliate capitals are much easier to identify than sculptors. Knowing them would help us understand their movements, employment patterns and, through changes in their style, the chronology of the pieces they carved. From this we should be able to date nearly every part of most buildings, and to follow the travels of some very gifted men ["Chapiteaux à feuilles d'acanthe du Portail Royal", Bulletin de la société archéologique d'Eure-et-Loir, 1990.]

4. Examine their geometric methods to understand how they designed these great undertakings. As a practicing architect I found this study the most powerful tool for getting closer to their way of working, but my colleagues' almost total disinterest in geometry has discouraged me. I still believe it is an important tool, and would like to interest others in it.

5. Scientific analysis of timber, mortar and stone, as in recent dendro-chronology of the aisle timbers at Chartres which confirmed my dating, and recent exciting work on stone sourcing.

6. Use Toichology. Without understanding the church in 3-D and being able, either on paper or in the mind, to visualize the building evolving in space and time, it is extremely difficult to comprehend the process of architectural construction. It would be useful if courses in stone-reading was included in the training of all architectural historians.

7. Recast the general history of Early Gothic with everybody's work of the past twenty years. So many outmoded beliefs are still being repeated that this may be a good time to update an overview of this unique period. [for example. see chapter 2, The Traveler's Key to the Sacred Architecture of Medieval France, New York, 1986.]

From my own experience in lecturing and grant-raising I believe that studies that identified real people would engender considerable excitement, that more people would become interested in our work, and more students would want to enroll in our courses. This is not being mercenary, but realistic about the future growth of our discipline.

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